Which is worse: HIV or corruption?

After another giant geographic leap (roughly the equivalent of London to Tehran) I find myself in Manokwari, West Papua. Tanah Papua, Indonesia’s eastern extremity, has the country’s highest rates of HIV, and also its highest levels of stigma. Which makes me wonder who came up with this commitment, made on an ageing poster that has pride of place outside the provincial Governor’s office. It declares: The West Papua government will lead the fight against: KKN (Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism) Narcotics…


Headhunters stand up against religious thuggery

One of the mysteries of life in Indonesia is how the government and the security forces allow absolute chaos, sometimes even mass murder, to develop in totally predictable ways. As groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI in Indonesian) move around the country beating up hookers and inciting violence against non-Moslems, the President and his ministers play Three Monkeys — see no evil, hear no evil, and therefore never have to speak about any evil. …


Take the Money Politics and run

It’s local election season in many areas of Indonesia. That means posters of well-fed used car salesmen promising vaguely to fight corruption and enrich the “rakyat”, the majority of Indonesians who live from day to day or month to month. It also means that towns and villages are filled with “Tim Sukses” — swarms of volunteers who try to get the vote out for their candidate, often with the help of envelopes of cash.


Berry jelly: wobbly trademarks in Indonesia’s phone market

Indonesia is mobile-phone mad. People who live in villages with no phone coverage and no electricity all have mobile phones “in case I go to town”. Motorbike taxis drivers, fishermen, primary school kids, trash-pickers — all have mobile phones. I regularly get e-mails from sex workers “sent from my Blackberry”. Indeed in the realm of smartphones, Blackberry is king, with 42% market share. In fact Blackberries are so popular that a couple of months ago a scrum for discounts on…


The real bad guys: the confused world of mining

Drifting out of the world of HIV, I’ve been able to get away from the knee-jerk demonisation of Big Pharma (often by people who are only too happy to extend their lives by taking their Truvada as long as someone else pays for it). But I’ve re-discovered another Public Enemy Number 1: Big Mining. Just to be clear, I’m under no illusion that Rio Tinto is all sweetness and light and contributing to human welfare, any more than Pfizer is….


Ceremonial confusion: personality, politics and parties in Indonesia’s fiefdoms

It’s party season here in Weda, a newly-bustling town on the east coast of Halmahera island. There are parties and Parties, and the confusion of the two are a pretty good illustration of life in Indonesia’s districts, which are often run very much as personal fiefdoms of the Bupati, or regent. The Bupati is the elected head of the local government. He (it usually is a he) runs an executive that is supposedly held to account by the local parliament,…



Cheating justice: the case of the teenage sandal thief

When Indonesians ask me what I find so special about their country, I often throw the question back at them. There’s usually much head-scratching and no clear answer. So then I ask: OK, what do you think defines Indonesia, then? Again, rarely a clear answer. The other day, though, a random unemployed guy I met on a boat came out with this: “Indonesia is a country based on the rule of law”. I nearly fell into the Banda sea (the…


Spicing up capitalism: in praise of monopolies

I welcomed 2012 while in the Banda islands, moderately famous because just one of the nine tiny islands of this isolated group was once thought to be a fair exchange for Manhattan, something I wrote about while a Reuters correspondent in these parts two decades ago. The differing fortunes of the two islands — the one still rich in nutmeg, the other now just plain rich — inspired Michael Schuman to give us this homily of protest at protectionism. He…


Equal Opportunity Kitsch

For the last few weeks, I’ve been in Maluku, formerly known as the Moluccas, famous for spices and inter-religious carnage. The hideous religious riots of 1999-2002 have left a deep scar on this part of the country. Whole communities were uprooted and there was a shift between islands as people who formerly lived perfectly happily with neighbours of another faith consolidated into single-faith blocks. Needless to say, this makes me furious. I have never understood how people can grow to…